Disentangling Socialism, Communism, and the Welfare State

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A Comparative Analysis of Socialism in Theory and in Practice Today

Not the Communism You’re Looking For 

By Sean Fischer – Associate Dean for External Affairs, Rowan University

Americans as a rule have a very limited understanding of their own government, much less a circumspect understanding of systems which operate (or have operated) in other nations. Our nation suffers greatly from a lack of civic awareness; Americans are quick to press their rights, yet fail to understand that within the social contract created by our founding documents (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) there are also obligations and responsibilities of citizenship. No example is more concrete than the routine conflation of socialism with communism in the United States. The terms are not synonyms despite the ever-present confabulations on social media sites, YouTube, and right-wing punditry.

Communism vs. Socialism 

To be clear, it is not being suggested that communists were/are not socialists. Communism as a government mechanism has roots in Marxist socialist economic philosophy. That is, the means of production should, in theory, be owned by the people themselves and that labor has equal or greater value than capital (a sentiment once ironically embraced by Republicans). However, all socialists are not communists. Communism, as a governing mechanism, also has roots in authoritarianism. Communists adhere to dictatorial leadership paradigms, oppress free speech and free press, private ownership of property, and “commerce” (as capitalists understand the term) is severely limited to an often corrupt closed circle. Generally speaking, one political party will serve as the rhetorical and propagandist avatar ‘of the people,’ but is more often than not the formalized housing for the authoritarian, their oligarchs, and their apparatchiks. However, other forms of socialism exist beyond communist states like China, the former Soviet Union, Cuba, and North Korea. Most of Western Europe adheres to some form of greater socialist economic applications, as does Canada, Mexico, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Nordic nations. While assertions exist that these nations are “communist,” we know they are not because they generally hold in place all tenants of modern democratic principles

The Long War Between America and ‘Communism’

As we look back stateside, we see the American Right has over the course of the last 80 years hurled the accusation of communist toward anything that seems against the grain of their discreet worldview. Long ago, President Harry Truman – no friend to communism – tried in vain to expunge these sorts of sophomoric accusations from our lexicon. Despite those attempts, we see it still with all of the sophism and fear of yesteryear. Media voices and elected leaders who exploit this fear bear a particular shame; they have failed the inherent obligations of truth telling and keeping reason at the heart of discourse which are both their social responsibilities. Nevertheless, the fervor by which public policy or political positions are labeled as “communist”, “like China”, or “like Venezuela” remains. Again, to be clear, communist states and communist societies ought to be feared. Communism has failed as a governing strategy, and by our standards communism is inherently an illegitimate form of government. Communists, require and compel specific behaviors, beliefs, thoughts, and actively oppress those who speak out otherwise. Such a system is the exact opposite of what is promised within our social contract

Hidden Socialist Undertones in the U.S. 

Socialism on the other hand, well, that already exists here in the U.S. and arguably has for longer than the term itself has existed. Socialist economic principle essentially argues for a safety net and the cooperation and equitable distribution of certain resources usually required for basic needs: food, healthcare, shelter, and safety. To ensure cooperation — not competition — over these basic-needs resources, governments put in place appropriate taxes to generate the necessary revenue and then developed bureaucracies to effectively manage that cooperation. There is a broad range of examples of this in the United States at the federal, state, and local levels: Social Security, Medicare, state highways, k-12 schools, fire and emergency management, and policing. Local policing is arguably the single most socialist service within the United States. Local police are fully tax-payer funded (operations, salaries, benefits, and pensions) and are required to serve the entirety of their communities regardless of resources or other circumstances. People are not charged user fees for calling the police. The police have codified professional obligations, and for these requirements, they are outfitted with appropriate resources: training, firearms, etc. They possess the exclusive power and privilege of enforcing the laws. Moreover, that power is also arguably authoritarian in nature as it permits police to lawfully deprive individuals of exercising their unalienable and civil rights. This should not be construed as an argument that policing is communist, merely that parallels exist; yet you would be hard-pressed to find modern conservatives who lob the term “communist” at local police

The Public Needs to be More Civically Engaged 

The aforementioned lack of civics education and understanding underpins all of this bizarre, uneven, and disingenuous rhetorical construct. Our limited understanding of civics writ-large makes it so political demagogues and media charlatans can exploit ignorance and fear for their own personal gain, not for some grand principled adherence to stewarding a more perfect union, preserving justice, and insuring domestic tranquility. Rather, it enables the insidious, and sometimes obvious, abuse of power; it erodes our national capacity through the reduction of the quality of our national dialogue. If our social contract is to be effective, we must maintain the predicated assumptions of ensuring reason is at the heart of the debate, and truth telling, accuracy, and facts are maintained as hallmarks by our leaders and media voices.

America Is Not Socialist. Thank God.

By Robert Wilkes – Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall 

Dear Sean, Keep on writing. You obviously enjoy it and you put a lot of work into your opener. I hope after you read my response you come back guns blazing. I look forward to it.  

On the main topic of your response, we have much we can agree on. Americans have indeed chosen a mixed economy, a compromise between laissez-faire individualism and a collectivist welfare state. Where we go from here is the debate of our time. Much depends on it.  

The thrust of your essay is to defend the acceptability of the term “socialism.” I assume you intended, in a roundabout way, to defend the welfare state and seek its expansion. I also assume that you do not mean full-on socialism, something very few Americans would tolerate. 

We should define each term for our readers. I propose these definitions from Encyclopedia Britannica:

Welfare state, concept of government in which the state or a well-established network of social institutions plays a key role in the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of citizens. It is based on the principles of equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life.

Socialism, social and economic doctrine that calls for public rather than private ownership or control of property and natural resources. According to the socialist view, individuals do not live or work in isolation but live in cooperation with one another. Furthermore, everything that people produce is in some sense a social product, and everyone who contributes to the production of a good is entitled to a share in it. Society as a whole, therefore, should own or at least control property for the benefit of all its members.

There Is No Welfare State or Socialism in our Founding Documents

This writer will not abide by your attempt to rewrite American history. There was no welfare state (and emphatically no public ownership of private property) in the minds of America’s framers. The only “social contract” one can find in the warp and woof of the founding documents was John Locke’s vision of man in a state of nature tempered by duties of citizenship. Locke’s social contract is obviously the one that animated our founding documents. 

Here is an excerpt from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The Law of Nature, which is on Locke’s view the basis of all morality, and given to us by God, commands that we not harm others with regards to their “life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Because we all belong equally to God, and because we cannot take away that which is rightfully His, we are prohibited from harming one another. So, the State of Nature is a state of liberty where persons are free to pursue their own interests and plans, free from interference, and, because of the Law of Nature and the restrictions that it imposes upon persons, it is relatively peaceful.

The first example of a welfare state was introduced in 1883 in Germany by Otto von Bismarck (to appease the working class and deflect support for socialism). Therefore, the framers could not have intended the innocuous phrase, “promote the general welfare,” to be justification for a welfare state, because no such welfare state could have been in their thoughts. 

The nearest thing to a “welfare state” the framers probably were familiar with was classical Rome. High taxes, free grain, and reform programs to absolve debts and give land to the poor all hastened the decline and fall of the grandest empire the world had known. 

The founders’ ideal was not a mob demanding bread and circuses, it was the yeoman farmer independently toiling to make his own bread. Limited central government, individual liberty, and protection of private property were foremost on their minds. To suggest that the founders intended to introduce socialism to “promote the general welfare” is utterly mistaken. 

Locke’s social contract, mentioned above, seeks to prevent harm to the life, health, liberty, or possessions (my italics) of others. Private property, not socialism, was a bedrock principle in early America, and Americans abhorred unreasonable taxes. So please, let us avoid ex post facto references in the founding documents to justify socialism. 

Socialism, Given Enough Time, Is Always a Failure

An ever-expanding welfare state degrades our distinctive national character. Americans are self-reliant, resourceful, and freedom-loving, and we like it that way. We are not Europe. Our ancestors, whether they arrived on the Mayflower or immigrated through Ellis Island, fled Europe to start life over in a land of freedom and opportunity. 

Perhaps some watered-down form of socialism can work, for a time, in a small country like Denmark. It has a small, homogeneous population (fewer people than in my state of Washington) who are willing to give up half their income for guaranteed food, shelter, health care, and free education. Even the Danes are discovering cracks in their system, the Swedes as well. Socialism, where tried, has seriously depressed growth in Africa and South America. The most egregious example is Venezuela, where the average person lost 24 pounds for lack of food

More commonly, the scheme falls of its own weight. It happened in the UK when Margaret Thatcher’s free-market reforms saved the nation from its disastrous lurch to socialism after WWII. Thatcher famously said, “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.” In another example that clearly demonstrates the superiority of free-market capitalism over socialism, once Israel ditched the socialism of its founding generation it rapidly became the technology powerhouse it is today. 

Know Your Audience 

On your approach to the debate, my guess is that you understand the word “socialism” is in bad odor in the US. Your method of argument is to sanitize the word and make it acceptable by setting up a straw horse, communism, and arguing that socialism is not communism. But I doubt that readers will buy that argument. Communism is a brutal, murderous, and soul-sapping tyranny. Socialism, in which the state owns or controls all property and means of production, is a stepping-stone; communism light. Your argument will not fly. 

Lastly, you have made a logical fallacy when you asserted that a police department is an example of socialism. It is a false analogy, an apples and oranges error, something like: cats eat food out of cans, I eat food out of cans, therefore I am a cat. Your argument was: welfare is funded by taxing citizens, police departments are funded by taxing citizens, therefore police departments are forms of welfare. Not hardly. 

Responding to the Socialist Boogeyman

By Sean Fischer – Associate Dean for External Affairs, Rowan University

Greetings Robert, it is certainly nice to see that you have taken an interest in the piece and have taken some time to provide a reply. I am grateful for it and the opportunity to further discuss this issue. 

As you might expect, I disagree with much of your response. Where I will begin, however, is a thank you. As someone writing from the proverbial right-side of the aisle, it is refreshing to see where we readily agree — as a governing mechanism, communism is both failed and illegitimate by the standards set in our body politic and our social contract.  We also seemingly agree that socialism is not at our doorstep. However, the arching point of my piece is missed by your retort. The point is that elected leaders and pundits, more so on the right, routinely contrive all sorts of boogeymen using terms like socialist, communist, “like Venezuela,” etc., to create a specter of fear of progressive legislation among voters. Some may do this ignorantly — some may literally have a poor understanding of these terms — while some might do so disingenuously to score rhetorical points despite actually knowing better. Irrespective of the reason, when these actors fail to educate themselves or deliberately mislead the people, we are in active betrayal of the brilliance of our founding. Our Founders never feared the consideration of ideas; the founding was birthed from adherence to reason and expected public actors would act in the public interests, not merely in the interests of one’s political allies. In some respects, your reply illustrates how far this bizarre and uneven rhetorical construct has taken hold. 

As to local policing, I made no claim that the police are communists or socialists — and certainly not by the dictionary definition you have provided. They are public servants fully within the vision of our founding and any modern democratic society. They are not by design government-paid enforcement apparatchiks, loyal to a single political party. What I noted was that there are actual parallels between communism and the tools and organizational aspects of local policing. Yet despite those parallels, the right would never hurl a spurious communism accusation upon the police the way they have with vaccination programs, voting access, national healthcare, or any number of other traditional power of the purse programs. The point is that these hollow accusations are laid bare by this recognition. 

Historical Cherry-Picking: A Broader Analysis of the Founders’ Intent

Next, your select use of Locke betrays your less-than-fair accusation that I have attempted to rewrite history. Our Founders were not exclusively pushing Lockean philosophy (though we may as a duo decide to come back to your having missed the “Lockean Proviso”). They were inspired by him, the philosophers of Greek, Roman, and Near East antiquity, Calvin, Hobbes, Moore, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Machiavelli, and a great deal many others — and then they expanded upon them. While Locke is surely important, to limit our founding’s inspiration to a lone philosopher is as unfair to them as it is to me. Jefferson, as inspired by those aforementioned, and Thomas Paine’s masterful Common Sense, aided by Franklin, Adams, Sherman, and Livingston, set the standard for our politeia in the Declaration of Independence. Franklin and Sherman then participated in the creation of our republic, when the first form of national organization, the Articles of Confederation, failed. Moreover, stated failures of the Articles were the government’s inability to act directly upon the citizenry and that it did not have a proactive role in regulating commerce (ironically, that government was considered effective at managing public lands). We also readily agree that the Founders had a rightful fear of mobocracy, but this is why they formed a republic, not a pure democracy. They did not conflate programs seeking to impact citizens’ well-being as akin to mobs demanding bread and circuses — talk about apples to oranges. 

Of course, socialism and “welfare state” are not terms used in the American founding. Those terms did not exist then. Nevertheless, Madison, Hamilton, and other federalists (those who supported the ratification of the Constitution, not the later political party) would be loath to hear that the government did not have a role in ensuring the protection of the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, by way of programs that not only promote the general welfare (a phrase upon which we, Hamilton, and Madison might all continue to quibble about with one another) but focus toward the common good. In its entirety, the Preamble to the Constitution is clear that the government is responsible (beyond “promoting the general welfare”) to “form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense…and secure the blessings of liberty.” We know exactly how the Founders felt about these terms, as the Federalist Papers are careful to recognize both the dangers of demagoguery and faction (a cable of self-interested men who are not working toward the common good but to their own ends). The fears of the Founders, that the government would cease prioritizing the common good through faction or demagoguery to accommodate connected self-interest, stand in contrast with an interpretation that liberty and freedom are only born through some version of rugged individualism. In fact, to our Founders, they were to be maintained by an engaged and responsible citizenry. 

The Creation and Growth of the Social Safety Net

Indeed, Jefferson’s ideal was the yeoman farmer, but he was not the only Founder with a vision. Hamilton stands as the obvious bulwark to Jefferson, and countless leaders in the Mid-Atlantic and New England, where manufacturing and commercial enterprises were already more developed, had alternative visions, and were already interested in extending participation in the body politic to those who did not own real estate. Nevertheless, Jefferson himself believed that in the absence of commercial enterprise, all men were entitled to work lands to sustain themselves and that the absence of such a safety net was antithetical to our founding ideals. This is not a “welfare state” concept that you or I might think of, but it recognizes that there needs to be access to life-preserving and sustaining resources and that such access is well within the confines of our social contract.  As the Founders’ vision held its brilliance and our nation grew and responded to the challenges of each generation, we built greater social safety nets while expanding access to who can participate in the democratic process. While we are not, as you say, a watered-down form of a socialist system, we offer a great deal of social safety net programs and socialized government services, none of which live in tension with a capitalist system. And what is also clear as crystal, Americans like those programs, lest we forget the ironic “keep the government out of my Medicare/off my social security,” slogans we have witnessed in the absolute failure of Republicans to overturn the Affordable Care Act, and appropriate expressions of respect for first responders. 

These programs arguably enhance our ability to be entrepreneurial, certainly as it relates to the entrepreneurial risk-taking opportunities for those in a lower position on the socioeconomic scale.  You would be hard-pressed to find any serious political leader demanding equality in outcomes, but equity with respect to opportunity, to ensure a system where one can elevate their standing through effort, is at the heartbeat of the American politeia. It is in this adherence that our socialized programs have been born and revered. 

“Socialism” as a Fear-Mongering Tool

You can of course find pockets of those on the left accusing those on the right of being fascists or some other contrived authoritarian boogeyman. Those arguments too would be lackluster, despite the obvious appreciation some on the right have shown for cults of personality, the alarming allure of “domination,” fear of “others,” and the violence casually championed by some. These too are spurious, yet the vigor by which those in leadership positions lob these sophomoric barbs is decidedly tipped to the right.

The argument I made was never to champion a pure dictionary definition socialism, nor make some apples to oranges comparison which indicated we are a rose by any other name. It was merely to illustrate the nonsensical accusations for what they are — nonsense — and to point a spotlight at those who deliberately mislead to score political points (or sinecure, access, ratings, or whatever else factions elevate over the common good). To be clear, I am not suggesting that your reply should be lumped in with these missives. Nevertheless, the point is worth stating that it is through the spectacle of equalizing deliberate misinformation with reason and discourse where we betray our founding. It is certainly not betrayed when “We the people,” through our government, channel efforts toward the common good. 

If you enjoyed this debate, you can read more Political Pen Pals here. 

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Sean Fischer
Administrator & Adjunct Faculty, Rowan University | Website

Sean M. Fischer, Ed.D, has taught and currently teaches American History & American Government at a number of colleges. He's previously produced a public affairs radio show (Spotlight on Atlantic City, 96.1 WTTH) and is a veteran of numerous political campaigns.

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Robert Wilkes
Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall

Robert Wilkes, Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall, is the former president/creative director of Wilkes Creative, a national branding and marketing company. Robert flew 100 combat missions in Vietnam as a Navy attack pilot. He spent ten years in engineering and marketing at Boeing, where his writing skills were called upon for technical papers, marketing assignments, and speeches for Boeing executives. As an activist in pro-Israel politics, he lobbied with AIPAC for 15 years where he met many congressmen and senators from both parties. Robert loves history, enjoys the craft of writing, and has a passion for civil debate. He resides in Bellevue, Washington.


Drew August 24, 2021 at 12:59 am

Will there be a chance for rebuttal from the first writer and further back and forth?

Joe Schuman August 24, 2021 at 7:23 am

Thanks, Drew! We aren’t planning on publishing any further responses, But you can reach out to either author if you would like to discuss further. Sean’s contact: fischers@rowan.edu Robert’s contact: rcw@wilkescreative.com


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